On Running And Privilege

Nearly a decade ago, I was working on school-building projects in the Maasai Mara, in a remote area of the Great Rift Valley of Kenya. During my stay, and for the first time in my life, the deeper meaning of long-distance foot travel truly hit home. I would often take long treks with my Maasai friend to visit his family several valleys over from our camp. We would hike four to five hours one way, over rugged hills, leaving just before dawn, moving cautiously to avoid elephant herds and other game. When we reached my friend’s home, we would sit in his parents’ mud hut, sip sweet milky tea, and chat about the walk, the weather, the cattle. My friend would drop off a few goods and sometimes some money for his family. We would never stay long, an hour at most, drinking a cup of sour milk from a calabash for strength before returning back to camp–a full day’s worth of hiking for a brief exchange.

Driving would have a been a possibility, yet would have taken approximately the same amount of time, cost money, and added the stress of a potential breakdown or getting stuck in the mud. Walking, while fundamentally utilitarian, was also a form of independence and self-reliance.

Another good friend of mine was a Kipsigis man, a goat herder and a 2:12 marathoner. In Kenya, running 2:12 for the marathon does not mean much, given the depth of talent and fierce competition for the limited opportunities to race internationally. He admitted to me that he started running with hopes of traveling to Europe to win prize money from racing to bring back to his family. While he did not succeed in gaining sponsorship for travel, he did come to love the practice of running for its own sake. Each morning, he would wake up, run for a few hours on the dusty, sun-beaten dirt roads connecting the neighboring villages, and then proceed on to a full day of herding his goats. Running had slipped into his routine as something nourishing and vital. It struck me that the act of moving on foot had greater meaning and importance than simply being a means of transportation.

My Kenyan friends have little in the way of material possessions. Their work is strenuous and overshadowed with precarity. Yet, in the face of this adversity, they still carve out time to walk and run, for pleasure, for fulfillment, for personal exploration.

I realize that in my own life, I should not treat running as a given, as something I can just go out and do, but as a privilege. Every time I head out the door, no matter the distance or the time, I am grateful for the opportunity to put one foot in front of the other.

I am very fortunate to be able to travel to races all over the world. Events, gear, and accommodation are all expensive and require a certain affluence of participants. Running, as an organized sport, is an activity for the privileged. Beyond the expenses of participation are also the basic privileges of time and health. I am constantly reminded of the immense wealth afforded by these two ephemeral elements. This past weekend’s long run was no different.

I head out the door early morning, gently letting the aches and pains of my body settle to neutrality. The sky has a solemn mood, revealing not an inch of blue, thick instead with greys, whites, and blacks. The air feels heavy, quiet. I drop rapidly into the canyon, the relaxed pace giving me a chance to synch my breathing to my stride. Before long, I’m working the first climb, existing only in that small bubble of effort, vacillating between pleasure and pain. My legs carry me, my heart and lungs are strong. Time dissolves from its pesky numerical form, ceding to its qualitative nature. How wonderful it is to run. How thankful, how fortunate I feel, that something so simple can confer so much wealth. Such privileges should not be taken for granted, so I cherish each and every step I am able to take.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • How have you found running to be a privilege for you? In the way that you have personal time amidst a hectic family and work life? That you are able to travel through greenscape in a world that is becoming more paved and populated every day? That you have the requisite affluence to buy running shoes and race entries? For another reason?
  • When was the last time you felt the privilege of running be taken away, whether it was because of lack of time, access to the resources you needed to do it, or something else?

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Joe Grant

frequently adventures in wild places, both close to home (a frequently changing location) and very far afield. He inspires others by sharing his words and images that beautifully capture the intersection of the wilds, movement, and the individual at Alpine Works.

There are 5 comments

  1. runthealps

    Really great piece, Joe! I loved this line so much, it's going into my list of favorite quotes…

    "I realize that in my own life, I should not treat running as a given, as something I can just go out and do, but as a privilege. Every time I head out the door, no matter the distance or the time, I am grateful for the opportunity to put one foot in front of the other."

    It's something we all forget… but shouldn't.

    By the way, my brother was in the Peace Corps in Kenya for three years, and I well remember heading over there and the running scene there. After months of running at a rural school near Mount Kenya, a farmer finally pulled my brother over and asked, "Mr. Don, tell me… why do you run with a stethoscope?" My brother explained it was a Walkman, for music… funny cross-cultural confusion!

    Thanks for sharing great writing.

  2. @dbrez12

    Joe, I always enjoy your irunfar columns and photography and per usual I appreciate the tenor of this piece. With that said, there is something a bit troubling to me about the opening anecdote (having spent a good amount of time in Kenya over the years conducting research for my dissertation in history). I worry that what gives the opening description so much affect is that it mobilizes multiple tropes of an exotic (East) Africa to evoke an image that is probably familiar to the website's largely western/non-Kenyan audience, but also kind of problematic. I just always wonder about the (no doubt many) stories and experiences that disrupt these tropes and their value to the ever-growing worlds of trail running media. I highly recommend Chimamanda Adichie's excellent tedtalk "The Danger of a Single Story" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg for anyone interested in further reflection.

    1. JoeWGrant

      Thanks for the comment. I agree that when describing other cultures there is often a tendency to relate the story in a way that makes it sound more exotic, emphasizing details that are foreign to us and sound compelling simply because they are different. It reminds me of this rant about "White Guy Photography" http://petapixel.com/2013/11/06/white-guy-photogr… which I find thought provoking.
      That being said, in this particular anecdote, I am being honest in recounting the story as accurately as possible. We were living in a remote part of the Maasai Mara. My friend is a traditional Maasai man, who was brought up in a traditional way. Elephant herds would always roam near by, often devastating crops and are greatly feared because they charge people. His parents live in a traditional mud dwelling. We would always drink sweet milk tea and sour milk when we visited. His mother would joke that we needed to drink the sour milk for strength for our return hike. There are a no exaggerations in my story or misconceptions and I'm also not generalizing about Kenya. I visited many other communities in Kenya that live in a very different way than the one described above. This is simply one representation of an experience I had that stayed with me and helped shape my view of traveling on foot.

    2. Meghan Hicks


      Thanks for your comment. I found Joe’s three anecdotes demonstrative of the point he was trying to make–first an example of foot travel by his friend in Kenya as a near necessity, a Kenyan who somehow found the time/energy/whatever to run not for function but for fun, and his own ability to start each day with some sort of aerobic activity–that foot travel as we Westerners know it is an act of privilege. Additionally, having spent about a year in East Africa myself, I found Joe’s first story inspired memories of my own similar experiences there.

      I totally agree that a culture can (but not necessarily) be misrepresented if only one story is told about it. On the other hand, storytelling is among the most powerful literary tools out there for its ability to transport the reader into the ground-level experience of the teller. I would submit that iRunFar’s readers can identify Joe’s stories about Kenya as his unique, singular experiences, not as representations of an entire culture or area of a continent, in the same way that his monthly descriptions of his experiences in Gold Hill, on the Flatirons, or on Longs Peak in Colorado represent his experiences only, and not our whole trail running culture’s. But maybe I am wrong here? What literary devices might you suggest Joe using as a more-effective-for-you alternative?

      Fun conversation, thanks for starting it.

      1. @dbrez12

        Thanks to you both for the responses. To clarify, I had no doubt that Joe described things as he saw and experienced them. And thanks, Megan for pointing out that the article does include two quite different stories about foot travel in Kenya. Reading through this again, the second anecdote does exactly what I am suggesting by telling a story of running as a leisure practice. The big tendency is to view running for Kenyans (at least in the Rift Valley) as strictly an economic choice. Awesome!

        Jumping to your questions I want to share two quick anecdotes. 1. In September 2013 I was in Kenya during the attack on Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi. I was living in the coast at the time, but a lot of friends and family got in touch to see if I was OK and get my take on the tragedy. Several of these email exchanges included comments to the tune of "and who knew they had shopping malls in Kenya." 2. A few years ago I was a teaching assistant for an intro to African studies course. On the first day the Prof. gave students blank map of the African continent and asked them to identify as many countries as they could. More than half could not identify any countries except South Africa and Morocco and the most anyone in the class correctly identified was 10 or 11 countries.

        I hope that gives some sense of how I am coming at this. I do think that writing about Kenya is very different than writing about Colorado. Writing about interactions with people–particularly people from historically marginalized parts of the world–has to different from writing about experiences with mountains. There is just a lot more at stake. The alternative strategies question is tough. I wonder sometimes if there is a value in omitting certain details from a story and sacrificing some of the thick description of a particular experience as an act of intervention. It is certainly something I have had to do in the past, but its not a strategy without its own problems.

        Anyway, apologies if I am taking this thread somewhere too far afield. Thanks again to you both for all of the fantastic trail running-related content you produce on iRunfar site and elsewhere. The words and images certainly provide brief, but much needed escapes from here in the flat lands of the Midwest.

  3. DogrunnerDavid

    Good stuff as always Joe. Your passion and experiences seem to inform your lens, both mental and photographic, in a way that strikes a unique chord on this site.

  4. therunningmafia

    Hi Joe,

    I’m always glad to see privilege addressed, especially from an established member of the running community. Thank you for starting this conversation.

    I wrote a piece regarding the barriers that woman face participating in sports in the developing world. I believe that these barriers lead to very gendered negative health outcomes for millions. Can I ask how woman in Kenya, (or Ethiopia) get involved in the sport initially?

    East Africans have the advantage of knowing that people from similar backgrounds and situations have emerged as the finest long distance runners of all time. However, for people everywhere else in the world, what will draw them into a sport which they perceive to have no potential for monetary gain whatsoever?

    Clearly one answer is increasing the world’s middle class. Running is booming in some middle income countries as a recreational sport. However shouldn’t the world’s first sport be accessible to everybody?

    Again, thank you for this post.


  5. mylifedoover

    My privilege to read this piece by Joe Grant, the first writing of yours I've read. Your phrase, "…gently letting the aches and pains of my body settle to neutrality" remind me that once I overcome the inertia caused by those aches and pains they will go away. And thank you for the reminder that, after all, recreational running is a first world pastime; combining it with a cause gives back in some small way.

  6. CalebsDad07

    In 2007 my son was born with a genetic disorder . That disease prevents him from walking or even breathing properly . I was already running and continue to do so . I sometimes have feelings of guilt . Normal ? Probably . I , without a doubt , cherish each step .

  7. @parisandon

    Thanks for sharing. I lived in Kenya and also had the privilege of working in the Mara. The Great Rift is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Foot travel allows you to soak it all in, really take the time to enjoy it. I think your points are spot on. I would love to see a well organized ultra in Kenya, maybe the Mt Kenya area.

  8. born2runwill

    Joe, this was good for the soul as usual. I have spent too little time in the mountains recently, and this inspires me to get out there and do some wandering in the woods.

  9. @Heatheruns2much

    Many of my relatives work "labor" jobs. By 40 they had all been out on workmans comp several times and were broken physically.

    Not me. I have a desk job that never injures me. And were I to injure myself running, I could still work. I don't take that for granted.

  10. northacrosseurope

    I've only recently 'discovered' I Run Far, but thoughtful columns like Joe Grant's make me wish I'd done so earlier. This site is definitely not something to take for granted. Thank you for the good work! :-)

    At 45 I'm aware that each run I take is a bonus. Who knows what lies around the corner? There are no guarantees. But for me it's not just running that feels like a gift, but my simple existence as well. What a miracle that I'm here! That you are too! Rarely a day passes that I don't think about death and non-existence for a few quick moments. Keeping in mind that I'll die is not a bad thing, quite the reverse. Because of it l try my best to live to the full, with immense gratitude for each single day I experience.

    Running in wild places is such a great way to celebrate life, isn't it? A silly little story I just stumbled upon today on the BBC's website (Too much jogging – as bad as no exercise at all http://www.bbc.com/news/health-31095384) seems to sum up for me how so many people don't get what it is that runners, and trail runners especially, do. Do we run to prolong our lives? No, we run to live them.

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